The silence of the Kerala shepherds

Protest against the re-conversion of poor Christians runs the risk of exposing the Church's neglect. 

Christopher Joseph
Kochi (UCAN): 

A Hindu nationalist group claimed on July 19 to have re-converted 39 Christians to Hinduism in Kerala, a Christian stronghold in southern India. But in contrast to other parts of the country, Christians and their leaders made no issue of the event.

Not a word of comment or protest came from any of the socially and politically powerful mainline groups — the Catholic, Orthodox, Jacobite and Syrian churches, or from the Protestant groups. The neo-Christian groups that have mushroomed in the past three decades also ignored it.

Why have Christian leaders turned a blind eye to these events? The silence prompts questions about what is at work in Christian communities, especially where Christians are a sizeable part of the population such as in Kerala.

The Catholic Church claims to account for 5 million Christians, making it the largest group. A prominent Catholic leader told me that his silence on re-conversion was deliberate and for two reasons. First, he asked, why give unnecessary publicity to events that are politically oriented? "We should not become political tools for them," he said.

Secondly, he said, these are not conversions or re-conversions because those “re-converting” are not Christians to start with. They had left the community sometimes many generations before.

If someone wants to leave nominal Christian identification for money and material benefits, he told me, "it is better that they leave”. The Church is not rich enough to dole out money for its people. It is the role of the government to help the socially deprived, he argued.

The first media-publicized re-conversion event in Kerala was in December 2014. It occurred six months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power seven months ago in May when he led a landslide victory for his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The victory then emboldened Hindu groups to turn into action their clamor to make India a Hindu-nation. There have been scores of re-conversion events in the past year that have been spearheaded by the VHP or Vishva Hindu Parishad (World Council of Hindus).

The re-conversion event is part of a bigger campaign. Rights and civil society groups released a document to mark the first anniversary of Modi’s victory claiming there were at least 43 deaths in more than 600 cases of violence — 149 targeting Christians and the rest attacking Muslims — in the 15 months from January 2014 to March 2015. Many of these attacks happened after Modi came to power, the document claimed.

The re-conversion campaign, which the BJP and VHP now support, can be traced to Dilip Singh Judeo, heir of the erstwhile Jashpur Kingdom in central India. Judeo, a former student of the Jesuit-run St Xavier's College in Ranchi, began the campaign 20 years ago alleging Christian missioners converted gullible tribal and poor Dalit (former untouchables) groups, luring them with money and material and services such as education. He ran campaigns titled Ghar Vapasi (home coming) to convert Christians back to Hinduism. His death in 2013 led the VHP to take up the approach as part of their campaign.

However, after every re-conversion event, the BJP has publically denied its role. But its leadership energetically promotes the activity itself. Thousands of Hindus have become Christians to escape caste-based inhumane discrimination, tempted by money and hoping for a superior social status. If they face social neglect and poverty in Christianity and want to come back, Hindus groups will help them, BJP spokesperson in Kerala V. V. Rajesh, told media after the first incident in December.

Here we get a clue as to why the leadership of some 7 million Christians in Kerala ignores the re-conversions. It is an undeniable sociological reality that most deprived people who joined traditional and aristocratic Christian communities almost a century ago endured discrimination and neglect. They were looked down upon, their presence ignored for generations within Christian communities.

These groups have reasons to be disgruntled. Some of their families stopped practicing their Christian faith generations ago, despite having a Christian name.

Neglect in the Church for generations did not enhance their broader social acceptance. Besides, the laws of the nation began to discriminate against them because of their religion. The constitution guarantees reservations in jobs and educational institutions for socially oppressed castes with the aim to improve their lot. But poor-caste Christians are denied these benefits on the grounds that their religion does not recognize the caste system.

Lapsed lower-caste Christians can legally change religion to Hinduism by publishing declarations in state gazettes to create opportunities for themselves in reserved government jobs or to secure for their children admission to educational institutions and financial grants for education.

Hindu activists have set up a wide network across Kerala to identify disgruntled and lapsed Christians and help them file legally valid applications to change religion. The applications detail how they have suffered spiritual and social neglect in their Christian community and how they wish to move over to their “original religion".

As Christian groups uphold the right for religious conversions, they cannot publicly oppose these legally valid conversions. Besides, if any one denomination of Christians opposes these conversions, they run the risk of exposing the neglect of poor Christians. All mainstream Christian denominations know one fact very clearly: they have scores of unhappy, lapsed Christians waiting to be subjects of re-conversion in Kerala.

The ancient Christians of Kerala, who claim the apostolic tradition of St Thomas, now live in seven different Churches, including two Catholic rites. Besides the Latin-rite Catholics in Kerala, the state also has at least 12 different Protestant groups, along with umpteen other independent neo-Christian communities. Some of these Christian groups are entangled in court cases over property and authority. That leaves the 7 million Christians in Kerala without any single forum to express concerns or follow any broadly accepted leadership.

BJP leaders have declared they are moving ahead with their re-conversion campaign. The silence of Christian leaders on re-conversion in Kerala could continue or transform itself into a protest against government-sponsored discrimination.

But that would require recognition on the part of Christian leaders of the part their communities have played in making re-conversion an option.

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